Steve Birnbaum - Wayne Rooney - Paul Arriola - Russell Canouse - Bill Hamid - DC United

CHULA VISTA, Calif. -- D.C. United's ascent from last in the East to potential MLS Cup title contender began with the August 2017 acquisitions of midfielders Paul Arriola and Russell Canouse, whose talent and energy jolted a struggling side rooted to the basement of the Eastern Conference.

Ben Olsen's team got better immediately, although it couldn't escape last place, and the context to their horrid start to last season was 12 of the first 14 matches away — while awaiting the completion of Audi Field — and Canouse's knee injury. Bolstered by Canouse's July return and feasting on midseason DP pickup Wayne Rooney's brilliance, United went on an 11-2-4 run the last half of the campaign, vaulting from the bottom of the table to a home game in the playoffs.

That D.C. United, which finished the year on an 11-game unbeaten run (including the knockout-round playoff draw with Columbus dropped on penalties), is the starting point for what's to come, Arriola and Canouse say, as the capital's side looks to climb among the elite teams in Major League Soccer.

“I think the last half of last year, we showed that we can be an elite team over a long stretch of games,” Canouse told MLSsoccer this week from the US national team's camp in San Diego's suburbs. “We obviously have to fill out our roster, but if everyone can come into the 2019 season with the same mentality that we had over the last half of the year, and knowing that we are a group of quality players and can be a top team, in the league, I think we can prove that within 2019.”

Arriola, also in the US camp, which happens to be in his home town at Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center, believes everything is within D.C.'s grasp.

“Confidence-wise, we all remember what we were like when we were winning [last year], and if we can win away games and kind of push ourselves up to the top, I think we'll be great. ... The way we ended the last half of the season last year, we can continue to build upon that.”

Arriola, a versatile wing attacker whom D.C. signed as a Designated Player after four and a half years at Club Tijuana, has proven United's most versatile player, early on adding spice to an inconsistent attack that could rely regularly only on Luciano Acosta, before later morphing into a right back by necessity. Canouse, who spent much of his teens in the youth setup at TSG Hoffenheim in Germany before spending a year on loan in the 2.Bundesliga, provided badly needed stability in front of the backline. D.C.'s record with him on the field is substantially better than when he's not.

Adding Rooney to that foundation gave D.C. the means to legitimately compete for honors.

“It's crazy that one player can change a team,” Arriola said. “Obviously, he's had so much experience, and the quality that he has is ridiculous, right? But more than that, I think him coming in, his presence, brings accountability. People feel accountable now. There was a different level of respect [inside] our locker room when he showed up.”

Canouse says the English striker's immediate impact came off the field.

“It's a high-earning player coming into the locker room who's accomplished almost everything you can accomplish at this level,” he said. “And he came in and was a humble player, was grounded, and he just knew how to work. And I think that rubbed off on a decent amount of players on our team, that that is how everything needs to be on a daily basis. You need to work hard, you need to compete in training, and when the game comes around, you know what you have to do.

“Wayne established that within the locker room [right away] and was the leader the last six months.”

Arriola calls him “the best addition” in D.C. United history — Jaime Moreno's arrival late in the inaugural season is the stiffest competition — and says Rooney's presence made himself, Acosta and Yamil Asad far better players.

“He made the game so much easier for us,” Arriola said. “We knew if we were in trouble, we can look to Wayne. We knew if we gave it to Wayne, that he would make something out of it. I think that was the confidence that we had been missing.

“I give credit to the club to be able to go and reach for a guy like Wayne. He's a hard worker, and when you see a guy like that working, you want to work. What's my excuse not to go and fight for a ball when you have Wayne doing dirty work and not taking days off? You know what I mean? I mean, he brings another level of respect, accountability, and the will to want to get better.”

D.C. still has moves to make ahead of their March 3 opener at Audi Field against reigning MLS Cup champion Atlanta United. Five players who hit double-digits in appearances have been jettisoned, and the club is in talks with Velez Sarsfield about purchasing Asad or extending the loan. The addition of 21-year-old Argentine midfielder Lucas Rodriguez bolsters the attack, but D.C. need to find a top defender and build depth at the back and up top.

Make the right moves, and D.C. could be special.

“I think last year was a very big step for us,” Arriola said. “[After a mid-August win over Portland], I think that was one of the first times we hadn't been in last place since I had arrived. And from then on, it was keep going and keep going in mid- I think it was after the Orlando game, and now when you get a little taste of success, you want more.

“I think this year that's how we're going to start. It's not good enough to be in the playoffs -- we made it to the playoffs last year -- but how can we continue to move forward and now push ever further. ... There's great things to come.”